Saturday, October 5, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #5 "Son of Frankenstein" (1939)

To those of us in the Sherlockian world, we're liable to forget that Basil Rathbone was involved with so much more than just a series of 14 movies featuring the world's greatest detective. Today I begin a series of reviews of my top five favourite Basil Rathbone films (not Sherlock Holmes-related). We begin with 1939's "Son of Frankenstein" released by Universal.

The success of "Son of Frankenstein" would decide Universal's fate in 1939. Universal had since the release of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, been the leading provider of horror films in Hollywood. However by the time of 1935's "The Raven" starring Bela "Dracula" Lugosi and Boris "Frankenstein" Karloff, the censors were cracking down on the amount of horror present in a movie. Great Britain banned horror films all together. It seemed like Universal was doomed.

Fast forward a couple of years to late 1938. A single cinema which was low on income put "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" on a double bill in hopes of turning a good profit. The public's reception is almost indescribable. It was obvious that horror films were back in vogue and Universal Studios was more than willing to supply it. A third installment in their Frankenstein series was scripted and soon found its way under the watchful eye of master filmmaker Rowland V. Lee. Soon Basil Rathbone was cast as the title character. Boris Karloff took up the role of the Frankenstein Monster for the third and final time. Bela Lugosi was cast as Ygor, the broken-necked blacksmith in one of the actor's finest performances. The ingredients were perfect for a spectacular horror film - and that's just what happened.

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) is returning to his ancestral home with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter, (Donnie Dunagan). Little does Wolf realize the name of 'Frankenstein' has become reviled by the villagers of the town ever since his father Henry Frankenstein brought to life a monster which went on a killing spree. While exploring the ruins of his father's laboratory, Wolf meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the blacksmith who was hanged years before after being accused of body snatching. Ygor survived the hanging and has since taken refuge in the ruins of the lab where he has befriended the Monster (Boris Karloff). Though still alive, the Monster is very weak and Ygor implores Wolf to restore him to health. Wolf consents and soon the Frankenstein Monster is on the loose again...

"Son of Frankenstein" truly is Universal's blockbuster horror film. It is by far the most spectacular-looking horror film they ever made, and this sense of grandeur goes a long way towards making the whole movie feel so epic. Usually, I think a sense of claustrophobia works best when it comes to horror films, but the fantastic sets (such as Castle Frankenstein or the lab) evoke great moodiness. The acting also goes a long way towards creating an incredibly moody atmosphere. Co-starring in the movie is Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, the village's representative of the police. Krogh has horrible, vivid memories of the Monster which killed his father and tore off his arm. Atwill evokes great sympathy as the inspector whose hopes for a military career are prevented by his run in with the Monster.

Basil Rathbone meets his father's creation (Boris Karloff)
Interestingly, for such a fine film, it was Boris Karloff's final straw when it came to playing Frankenstein's creation. Karloff felt as though there was no challenge inherent in the role. Karloff had originated the role in 1931's "Frankenstein" and along with director James Whale returned to the sequel, "Bride of Frankenstein" with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek as that movie is depicted as being a dark comedy sending up the horror genre. Perhaps Boris Karloff was somewhat founded in leaving the role of the Frankenstein Monster after this film. The Monster is only granted a little screen time, and he is more or less a tool used by Ygor to exact his revenge. However, Karloff's swansong in the role still has some brilliant moments and in the long run, this film would provide the Monster's last greatest moments. Universal's subsequent installments in the Frankenstein series could never live up to the initial three films, partially due to the studio being unable to thoroughly replace an actor to play the Monster.

What is most fascinating about Basil Rathbone in this film is that it was one of the first times the actor got to play a hero. As we'll see with some of my future picks for Top 5 Rathbone films, prior to this movie, the actor was typecast as a villain. Getting the opportunity to play the film's hero was a great coup to Rathbone, especially since he lost out playing two parts he desperately wanted: Dr. Frederick Steele in "Dark Victory" and Rhett Butler in "Gone with the Wind." One wonders if Rathbone's involvement in this movie was a deciding factor for him getting the role of Sherlock Holmes only a short while later in "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Basil Rathbone and director Rowland V. Lee reunited twice more at Universal Studios. Following close on the heels of "Son of Frankenstein" was "The Sun Never Sets" which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lionel Atwill. Part war propaganda piece part thriller, "The Sun Never Sets" didn't perform well at the box office. Rathbone returned to Universal in late 1939 for "Tower of London" which reunited him with Boris Karloff. "Tower of London" gave Rathbone the opportunity to chew some scenery as Richard III in this historical epic which united Rathbone and Karloff with Ian Hunter, John Sutton, Barbra O'Neil and Vincent Price. But neither of these films could top "Son of Frankenstein." It is an extremely entertaining film which boosts fine performances from all involved. Positively dripping with atmosphere, this movie also  has the distinction of being responsible for jump-starting the horror genre once more.

Coming Next Time: Rathbone joins Errol Flynn and David Niven in one of the most moving World War I tragedies ever filmed - 1938's "The Dawn Patrol."


  1. Not a big horror film fan, I will have to give this one a try.

    1. You really should. It's one of the most emotional and well-crafted 1930's horror films I have ever come across.


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